Earth Displacements: Draining the Swamp in Southeast Sulawesi

Feronickel rich soils called "laterite" have a characteristic red coloration; here a truck dumps earth in the bay to build a parking lot for the floating mosque. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Joe Klein, University of California at Santa Cruz §

Dump trucks carrying landfill are extremely common in Southeast Sulawesi; here a truck delivers landfill to the new “floating” mosque in the middle of Kendari Bay. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Land is on the move in Eastern Indonesia, often in the bed of a dump truck. This paper follows dirt through a new political economy of moving earth as coastal reclamation projects both big and small redraw the shorelines of the island of Sulawesi. Through land reclamation—that is, by using landfill to create dry land along the coast—new assets are born, while the meaning of land itself is rearranged. I focus on reclamation stories from the urban, peri-urban, and rural littorals of Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi’s provincial capital, a city built on a vast swamp. As a colonial outpost, Kendari’s expansive and productive intertidal systems—mudflats, nearshore reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and estuarine swamps—provided endless supplies of valuable marine products. Today Kendari has become a central node in global circulations of nickel ore due to its mineral rich coastal soils and political embrace of foreign capital. Displaced mining dirt is sold at bargain prices to the city and to villagers, both of whom dump it in the ocean. For coastal communities who traditionally lived in stilted houses with two feet in the water and two on dry land, the reclamation boom offers a chance to legally own the shoreline plots which they otherwise can only inhabit and inherit informally. For the government, the glut of displaced earth lubricates a series of coastal mega-projects including a grand “floating” mosque in the middle of the bay, a stupendously outsized container ship port, and a bay-spanning toll bridge to accommodate the ever-increasing number of earth-hauling dump trucks. Together these scenes from the political economy of moving earth begin to unsettle our understanding of land’s meaning and materiality, showing liquid earth and coastal transformation one truckload at a time.


“Earth Displacements” began not with an argument, but with a feeling: the terror of a dump truck rounding a blind curve, barreling down the center line of a two-lane highway, nearly driving you and your motorbike off the road. I had been in Kendari for about three days and hadn’t yet learned to drive as if I was expecting a truck to appear at any moment. I learned fast. But why so many trucks? Answering this question took me in strange and surprising directions and taught me how to see coastal transformation one dump at a time.

My arrival in Southeast Sulawesi wasn’t exactly planned—and so I didn’t know that it was the bloody heart of the Southeast Asian nickel mining boom. I had come to Sulawesi to study the live coral trade supplying the global aquarium industry, and originally prepared to work on the other side of the island, in the city of Makassar. But after limited success, I was looking for someplace new to land when friends encouraged me to visit Kendari. Two days later I boarded a plane and never came back.

Feronickel rich soils called “laterite” have a characteristic red coloration; here a truck dumps earth in the bay to build a parking lot for the floating mosque. Photo by author.

But something seemed off about Kendari. The ground and the roads on which I was living and travelling seemed somehow raw, unfinished. Everything was dusty, like a city sized construction site, and everyone had piles of gravel in their front yards. I saw the same thing in the small coastal village where I was spending most of my time. And then there were the trucks—thousands of them zig-zagging across the city and the province. Things began to make sense during an interview with a construction worker who was helping to build a parking lot in the middle of the bay. His parents had been re-settled to Kendari from West Java in the 1970s and were given a plot of marshy land near what is today the center of town. I finally connected the dots: we were living on the bones of a dried-up swamp.

Like many coastal cities, Kendari had undergone radical transformations under the sign of industrial modernity as planners worked to separate land from water with clear bright lines. The city was once part of an expansive fluvial plane with wetlands grading into the tear-drop shaped bay. Today it was all dry land. The way you do this is by first draining the water, and then filling in the holes with dirt—an enormous amount of dirt. Earth was trucked in from all over—stones from quarries, sand from riverbeds, and regular old dirt, sometimes from the glut of topsoil stripped away by the nickel mines which blanket the province. I began to see earth as a kind of liquid, moving through what Jerry Zee calls “phase shifts,” entering new semiotic and material forms as it traveled. This regime of movable earth had created its own political economy which transformed both the contours of the coast and the meanings of land itself.

“Earth Displacements” follows dirt as it moves across different scenes in this political economy, from industrial nickel mining to the cronyism of urban infrastructure contracts to the everyday practices of making new land in coastal villages. In each scene the earth becomes something else, and the meaning of land shifts.

These are not simple abstractions: the meaning of land and its concomitant ideologies of property have real effects. Consider the predicament of coastal villages where stilted houses in the intertidal zone were long the preferred architectural standard. These houses were cheap, stayed cool under the noon-day sun, and were even semi-portable. Sea level rise? Just raise your stilts. The problem, however, is that you can’t own the land beneath your house if it sits in the water, because water is not land. So people were pushing dirt off the hillside into the ocean or backing dump trucks up to the sea to fill in the space under their homes. Reclamation became a technique for generating assets—the logical conclusion of property regimes which render land as a commodity.

Stilted houses were the preferred style for houses until recently. Here you can see a stilted house next to newly created “land,” where residents have reclaimed the space under the homes. Photo by author.

I hope “Earth Displacements” can offer something new to conversations about the meaning and politics of land. Recent work by Kali Rubaii, Jerry Zee, and Kristina Lyons, for example, has helped me think about the materiality of land beyond spatial abstraction, and to see how earth might re-route our understandings of the political. I was likewise deeply inspired by Tania Li’s 2014 essay “What is Land?” in which she recounts an episode from colonial India where villagers protested eviction from their land:

To the argument ‘Your lands have been auctioned for arrears of rent and purchased by another’, they replied: ‘When a man buys a mat he rolls it up and takes it away; similarly unless the purchaser has rolled up my land and taken it away how can he be said to have purchased them? (Damodaran 2002, as cited in Li 2014: 589)

Li notes that in our conventional sense, people can be removed from land, but land cannot be removed from people: “Land is not like a mat. You cannot roll it up and take it away.” Yet reclamation stories like those in “Earth Displacements” start to unsettle land’s fixity. They rearrange the story in a kind of trick mirror where land is purchased, loaded into a truck, and like a mat, rolled out into the sea.


Works Cited

Li, Tania Murray. 2014. “What Is Land? Assembling a Resource for Global Investment.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (4): 589–602.


Joe Klein is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, and a founding member of the UCSC SEACoast Center. He studies and writes about economic and environmental change in Indonesia. His work has been supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Danish National Research Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays Program. He supports striking UC graduate workers and the COLA campaign. 


This post is part of our series, 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.